European Union chief negotiator Ignacio Garcia Bercero
European Union chief negotiator Ignacio Garcia Bercero speaks at a joint news conference with U.S. chief negotiator Dan Mullaney (unseen) after the fourth round of EU-US trade negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) in Brussels. Reuters

Almost 150,000 people and organisations have voiced concerns as part of a public consultation over a divisive element of the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

The European Commission launched a portal whereby Europeans could register their views on the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) clause of the proposed free trade agreement between the European Union (EU) and United States.

ISDS is a controversial but commonplace mechanism of free trade agreements, which grants a foreign investor the right to initiate dispute settlement proceedings against a foreign government, pending the results of a public consultation.

The EU's Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht temporarily removed the clause from discussions earlier this year in response to public opposition, amid fears that corporations could sue national authorities for loss of profits.

The commission will now consider the responses before deciding how to proceed with negotiations, however De Gucht recently told IBTimes UK that he wished to maintain some form of ISDS in any agreement, saying: "We're not inventing something new, we're not aliens. We're trying to work on the basis of what is common practice and make sure that it's much better organised than it was before."

In total, 99.62% of respondents were individuals, emphasising how engaged the European public has become with the debate over TTIP, which would become the largest free trade agreement in history.

The UK provided 34.81% (52,008) of responses to the consultation, suggesting that an aggressively argued campaign by various NGOs has resonated strongly with the British public.

The consultation was set up to establish public views on 12 issues relating to ISDS, including regulation, investment protection, transparency and relationships to domestic courts.

In an interview with this publication earlier in July, De Gucht attempted to reassure voters over the impact any ISDS clause would have over local sovereign law, accusing protestors of being "anti-American".

He also re-asserted a view that the NHS and other public services would not be included in TTIP and therefore wouldn't be blown open to private investment from US corporations.

This view has since been challenged by various UK-based NGOs and trade unions.

In a statement emailed to IBTimes UK, the general secretary of Unite, the UK's largest union, Len McCluskey, replied to De Gucht comments, calling on the UK government to confirm the view.

"There is no doubt the NHS is at risk because of TTIP. David Cameron must now make clear he intends to exempt the NHS from TTIP, otherwise our health service could be irreversibly sold to American corporations," said McLuskey.

"David Cameron must listen to the growing concerns in communities up and down the country. Why won't he answer the question? Are we going to use our veto to exempt health from the EU-US trade agreement?" he added.

In a joint-statement, the NGOs War on Want and World Development Movement challenged the EU's line on the exemption of both the ISDS and NHS, which was first outlined in a leaked letter from the union's chief negotiator Ignacio Garcia Bercero.

The statement said: "While Mr Garcia Bercero would have us believe such cases [of ISDS being utilised by corporations] are 'unlikely', he should recall that the Slovak Republic has already been sued successfully under similar investment provisions by Dutch insurer Achmea for reversing its health privatisation policies.

"We continue to argue for the complete removal of health, education, postal and other public services from TTIP, and an immediate halt to the negotiations themselves."

The commission estimates that its review of the consultation will be complete in November, saying: "Over the coming months, the commission will be looking carefully at the replies received. Once the work of analysis is completed it will report on the outcome of the consultation and present the details of the replies received. The commission shall also publish on its website the contributions for which the respondents have agreed to publication."